Why are there so many buses on Queen St? Why don't we get rid of them – all of them, except the new e-buses?
In many ways, this goes to the heart of the whole current dispute about Queen St. Auckland Transport says it wants to do it, but can't until 2024, when the CRL opens.
But if we're serious about rejuvenating the street at the heart of the city, shouldn't removing the unnecessary buses be a higher priority than that?
They're mostly diesel, belching black carbon. They're a safety hazard. And when they're all lined up, they cause congestion and block the view.
Shouldn't we do it now?
Last Friday, I met with the Save Queen Street Society head honcho Andrew Krukziener. SQSS took the council to court over Queen St this week, and lost that battle. But the war isn't over.
Krukziener told me he'd commissioned a survey. It revealed that on a typical weekday, between 9am and 5pm, 200 buses passed along Queen St. Half of them were empty.
Half! That's shocking. He said the average occupancy of those buses was 3.92 passengers per bus. He gave me the spreadsheets.
I asked Auckland Transport executive Wally Thomas about this. Why are they sending empty buses down Queen St? He told me he agreed: the numbers were bad.
Then he sent me a whole lot of AT's own data, which suggests 3100 people a day get off a bus somewhere on Queen St. (Getting on wasn't reported.)
But that's only 12 per cent of the 26,000 people who get off a bus anywhere in the city centre, defined roughly as the area within the boundaries of Symonds St, Victoria Park/Wynyard Quarter and Karangahape Rd.
(Note that, for several reasons, all these numbers are about 60 per cent down on pre-Covid records.)
So it's clear that few people coming into town need their bus to go down Queen St. Despite all those office blocks, it's not the primary destination you might think.
Another AT spokesperson told me, "Buses may appear empty on Queen St but they have already dropped many passengers off ... In the other direction, buses will pick up many passengers after Queen St. So an empty bus on Queen St is not an indication that the bus is not needed."
"Appear empty": that's very good. And it's true, we need the buses. No dispute there. But it doesn't mean we need them on Queen St.
And, according to AT itself, buses in peak time on Queen St currently take 20 minutes to travel 800 metres. You could granny step your way down the street more quickly.
The AT spokesperson told me: "One of the reasons for relatively lower demand on Queen St buses at the moment is the slow journey times."
Just to be clear. Congestion on Queen St discourages people from catching a bus. AT knows this. But that congestion is partly caused by the number of buses.
SQSS says the problem is made worse because when each bus stops it holds up all the traffic behind it. AT says it's more complicated than that and having bus stops out of the line of traffic doesn't really help. It's done modelling to show this.
Whoever's right, it's obvious buses contribute to congestion.
I went out and did my own count. In a mid-morning hour, off-peak, I recorded 47 buses going up or down Queen St below the Midtown intersection, by Farmers. Nearly half were red City Link buses, mainly from the new electric fleet.
Those red buses operate a constant shuttle linking Wynyard Quarter, Queen St and Karangahape Rd, and they had the most passengers.
The others had almost nobody. Their average occupancy rate was 1.76 people per bus.
Buses coming down Queen St and turning into Victoria St (that is, not going down past Farmers) had an average of 1.9 people on board.
Buses are valuable: they have the capacity to carry a lot of people without clogging the streets. But Queen St is being used as a service lane for getting empty buses from one point to another.
Remember, removing most of those buses is already AT policy, for when the CRL opens.
Krukziener said to me: "Why don't they do it now?"
If you catch a bus to town and you do want to ride along Queen St, he suggested, you'd transfer to a City Link e-bus to do it.
It's a good question. Why don't they take all the other buses off Queen St now?
AT's Wally Thomas told me: "People don't like transferring."
That's true, but what people? Those buses are almost empty.
The real reason this isn't happening now reveals an awful lot about how things get done, and not done, in transport and city planning disputes in Auckland.
On the one side, someone has a good idea. On the other, there's a cohort of professional planners, traffic engineers and their managers: the boffins of AT Metro, who spend their lives working on ideas like this.
They don't like being told how to do their jobs by pushy entitled amateurs. They don't jump every time someone says do it my way or I'll take you to court. And they have an established process.
Those planners know it's complex. Many thousands of buses arrive in the central city every day. When you change the flow on one street, they have to work out what it will do to all the other streets and all the other cars and buses.
At Auckland Transport they're got computerised models and tables and spreadsheets for all this coming out their ears.
In particular, they have to find workarounds for the ongoing closure of Albert St, caused by the CRL work. That street will become a major bus route through the city, but that can't happen yet.
AT Metro, I'm told, has "exhausted all other options". They believe there is simply nowhere else the buses on Queen St can go.
To which, the answer is: but they're empty! And: 20 minutes to travel 800 metres!
So perhaps we have to ask the question in a different way. Are the goals set right? Perhaps the restoration of Queen St, right now, should officially be declared the number one priority for inner-city planning.
If it was, maybe those transport boffins would come up with a different answer.
Council and AT are introducing their new city centre plans with trials and pilot programmes. Why don't they trial the removal of unnecessary buses on Queen St?
Sometimes, the professionals become trapped in a set way of thinking. They can be wrong. The pushy amateur is sometimes right.
Oh, and while they're about it, take the non-essential cars out too. While I was counting buses, I also counted all the other vehicles going up or down Queen St. At least 40 per cent of them were private cars and nearly all of them were not stopping, but passing through.
Removing them, in time, is council policy. Krukziener told me he wants to see that too.
Pedestrians are far and away the primary users of Queen St, and the street cannot be restored unless that becomes much more true than now.
Once the non-essential vehicles – buses and cars – are gone, the potential of the street will be clear. As a largely pedestrianised plaza, perhaps with a single lane for essential vehicles, enough room for them to park on legitimate business, another lane for scooters and bikes, and lots of activated areas, for outdoor cafes, market stalls, entertainment and relaxing in.
If we agree on that, why don't we empower the designers to do it magnificently? Why is this so hard?